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Archive | Keeping the Faith

You have to trust somebody

 

Ronnie McBrayer

Ronnie McBrayer

By Ronnie McBrayer

 

My family and I made a trip last summer to the Midwest. We stopped for lunch in the megalopolis of Carmi, Illinois, population 5,240. Most of these people must be scarecrows, because the only thing we saw there was a sandwich shop, a gas station, and cornfields.

While munching on sandwiches, our dog locked us out of our rental van. I tried to coax that little Shih Tzu over to the door locks for nearly an hour, but he was so enjoying the air conditioning, he wouldn’t budge. I went back inside the restaurant and told the sandwich-making lady that I needed a locksmith, knowing that one would probably have to come all the way from Peoria bearing a four-digit bill. She said, “I’ll call my friend, Rick. Trust me.” I cringed.

Rick showed up, walking out of the cornfields like Kevin Costner, and for $20 and the words, “Trust me” (There it was again!), had us in the van quicker than you can say “Carmi.” I kissed the sandwich maker, tipped Rick an extra $40, and we jumped back on the road with grateful laughter.

Then we had a tire blowout on the rental van in a place even more remote than Carmi. Our eight-hour joy drive devolved into a twenty-hour living hell, and frankly, I never want to see another Illinois cornfield again.

Still, it could have been worse. Where would my family and I have been without the sandwich maker who knew just who to call; without Rick, and his door-jimmying abilities; without the customer service rep at the rental agency who told me over the phone, “Trust me (Again!); it’s going to be okay”?

It would have been an even more rotten experience without the unknown, unnamed person who wrote the rental van manual, explaining where to find the infernal spare tire; without the young man at a tire service center in Mt. Vernon, Illinois who was the epitome of kindness; and there was the waitress, who at the diner when it was all over, seemed to understand that ice cream makes all disasters just a bit more tolerable.

All along the way I met people—honest, good people—who asked only for my confidence. That confidence was not disappointed, and I learned again that you have to trust a few people every now and then if you are going to make it safely home.

Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, speaker, and author of multiple books. You can read more and receive regular e-columns in your inbox at www.ronniemcbrayer.me. 

 

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Multitasking Madness

Ronnie McBrayer

Ronnie McBrayer

By Ronnie McBrayer

 

Beware of the multitasker. He or she isn’t being honest, for anyone who claims the ability to talk on the phone, surf the web, cook dinner, send a text message, balance the checkbook, and fly a crop duster all at the same time is terribly misguided.

Neuroscientist Earl Miller says, “People can’t multitask very well, and when people say they can, they’re deluding themselves.” What we humans can do, according to Miller, is shift our focus from one thing to the next with astonishing speed. So when we think we are paying careful and skillful attention to everything around us, but this is a trick of the brain.

The stupefying effect of multitasking may have been first observed in felines, not humans. Many years ago it was observed that cats could not focus on more than one target at a time. But scientists did not make this breakthrough. Lion tamers did.

Thankfully, the lion taming business has fallen on hard times in recent years. After all, such magnificent creatures were never meant to be caged. But some of us still remember the sensational lion tamers of the great circuses who would strut into the steel cage with little more than a cracking whip in one hand and a chair in the other.

Of course, these big cat masters knew that a dining chair wouldn’t keep the lions from devouring them (nor would the whip). What they knew was that the chair would confuse the lion. The four points of the chair’s legs, bobbing about as they were, tangled the lion’s mind just enough so that the animal could not act on his carnivorous intentions.

What an apropos parallel for those of us living in a world gone mad with multifarious activity – so appropriate it barely deserves comment. Our energy is so entirely defused and our attention so thoroughly diverted, that we are essentially incapacitated. We would do well to hear the words of Jesus for ourselves as he gently but categorically rebuked a dear friend by saying, “You are so worried and distracted by many things, when only a few things are needed.”

We aren’t super-sized computers built and equipped with central processing units. We are human beings, born to laugh and to love; born to take life slowly and deeply as it comes to us; and we are born to be uncaged, set free from the madness of multitasking.

Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, speaker, and author of multiple books. You can read more and receive regular e-columns in your inbox at www.ronniemcbrayer.me

 

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School’s out…say your prayers

By Ronnie McBrayer

Curtain climbers. Yard monkeys. Cherubs. Whippersnappers. Ankle biters. I don’t know what you call them, but our children have been turned loose on the world. School is out for summer (at least it ends this week here where I live). By the end of summer I’m afraid my description of these little animals will be a bit stronger. I’ll be ready for them to return to the classroom.
Still, I appreciate their euphoria. I can recall the butterflies that formed in my stomach as summer break approached each year: “No more pencils, no more books, no more teachers’ dirty looks.” So, I still get giddy this time of year just thinking about summer. But the real happiness is found in empty classrooms where teachers are dancing with unmitigated joy. At least I know my sons’ teachers are dancing. Preachers’ kids are the worst, you know.
It’s been said that if teachers were paid like professional athletes, and athletes were paid like teachers, our society would be a much better place. Amen to that. But money is not the reason these men and women give themselves to the classroom. They teach because they love working with children or a particular subject. They teach because as a student, they themselves were greatly influenced by a teacher. In fact, influence seems to be the real reason teachers teach. Only parents and close family members have the kind of unparalleled impact on youngsters as teachers. The influence is incalculable.
Too many times we who stand behind pulpits or travel to the “mission field” (whatever that means) monopolize the market on doing God’s work. But everyone has opportunity to do the work of God. This is doubly true for teachers.
Sure, there are a few bad apples in the educational barrel; you can find these kinds of folks in all career fields. Yet, teachers are a heroic lot who deserve our support, admiration, and even our prayers. God knows if I were matched against twenty-five second graders every day, I’d want someone praying for me.
And to my sons’ middle school teachers, a final word before you slip into the rapture of a kid-less summer: My wife and I have one more son coming your way. As he has been cultured by his older brothers, he may be the most challenging one yet. So accept my apology in advance. I’ll be praying for you.
Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, speaker, and author of multiple books. You can read more and receive regular e-columns in your inbox at www.ronniemcbrayer.me.

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Choose to be Happy

Ronnie McBrayer

Ronnie McBrayer

By Ronnie McBrayer

 

“There is something rotten in Denmark.” That is a centuries old phrase from William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” The Danish have smelled fishy ever since. But in reality, Denmark doesn’t stink at all. In fact, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and the Scandinavian nations of Northern Europe are officially the happiest countries in the world.

Annually, the Legatum Institute publishes its Prosperity Index that gauges the happiness level of the world’s countries. Consistently, Denmark, Norway and the Scandinavian nations are at the top of the heap. If you are curious, the United States is currently ranked 12th on the Prosperity Index. Not too bad, but our society as a whole is not as happy as it once was, and honestly I don’t think that comes as much of a surprise.

Happiness is affected by our environment. That much is true. Happiness is a product of our genetics (scientists say that an elongated 5HTT gene will make you happier on average than most). But ultimately, barring emotional or mental dysfunction, happiness is a choice we make. No, we don’t live in Scandinavia. We have no control over our chromosomal makeup. We can’t do anything about our age and very little to change our personal economics. There are simply some things we cannot change.

But, there are other things we can do something about. We can choose to live near our friends. We can decide to practice gratitude. We can do work we find fulfilling. We can opt out of the blame game, and quit holding God, life, circumstances, past lovers, ex-wives, former business partners, parents, and reality responsible for doing us in.

We can make choices that will lead us toward becoming happy, joyful people or we can make choices that will result in us becoming chronically unhappy people. Regardless, that choice belongs to each and every one of us.

It was Viktor Frankl, Jewish Holocaust survivor and Austrian psychiatrist, who best articulated the power of choice in personal happiness. Reflecting upon his time in the concentration camps he wrote, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”

If you want to be happy you don’t have to move to Scandinavia or wait for science to alter your genetics. But you do have to choose to be happy, and no one else can make that choice for you.

Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, speaker, and author of multiple books. You can read more and receive regular e-columns in your inbox at www.ronniemcbrayer.me

 

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The Power of Now

Ronnie McBrayer

Ronnie McBrayer

By Ronnie McBrayer

 

There is a Zen parable about a man who surprised a tiger while walking through the jungle. The ferocious animal pursued the man, and with the tiger tightly on his heels, the man came to a steep cliff. He saw a vine dangling over the edge, quickly grabbed it, and began shimmying down the vine narrowly escaping the teeth of the tiger who glared at him from the rim above.

This put the traveler in a predicament. He was high in the air with no place to go. The vicious tiger was overhead; jagged rocks were below; and he was clinging to a vine that was not nearly long enough to lower him to the ground. Then, as if things could not be direr, a mouse emerged from its den and began to nibble at the vine.

At this moment the traveler saw a perfect, plump strawberry within arm’s reach, growing out of the face of the cliff. He picked it, ate it, and exclaimed, “Wow!!! That is the best strawberry I’ve ever tasted in my entire life!”

The story ends there (leaving the man hanging in a lurch), but the lesson keeps going: If the man had been preoccupied with the rocks below (his possible future), or the tiger above (his past troubles), or the mouse chewing away at the vine (his vanishing present), he would have missed the strawberry within the present moment. He would have missed the joy of now.

Those of us who have fixed our eyes on the rearview mirror feel the days gone by slashing angrily at our heels with the unanswerable questions of regret. Yet, countless people live their lives in a hypothetical time machine, always worrying and fretting over a distant yet-to-come that might never materialize.

And of course there are those who are preoccupied with the future differently. They say things like: “I’ll do it one day (whatever ‘it’ is). Life will be better next week…next month…next year…next decade.” But in the end, the end comes far too soon, and all the best-laid plans never materialize.

If we are engrossed with the snarling monsters of our past, obsessed with the fearful uncertainties of tomorrow, or spend our precious few days prepping for an ethereal future, this much is certain: We give away today; we miss the now. Right now might not be your greatest moment, but now is all you have.

Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, speaker, and author of multiple books. You can read more and receive regular e-columns in your inbox at www.ronniemcbrayer.me.

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Where nothing Is sacred

 

Ronnie McBrayer

Ronnie McBrayer

By Ronnie McBrayer

 

 

The words “holy” and “sacred” are used interchangeably. But, I think there is a huge difference between the two. Sacred comes from the Latin, “sacrum.” You might recognize that “sacrum” is also the name of the bones in your pelvis. The ancient Romans called this part of the body “sacred.” It is from where life springs. Thus, the sacred was anything that had to be protected.

That is an excellent picture of how we employ sacredness. People create sacred rituals that draw lines, build barriers, and protect and secure space and turf. We feel we have to keep everything that is perceived as a threat on the outside.

During one of my pastorates, we moved from a shabby little storefront building to a beautiful, magnificent sanctuary. It was an incredible upgrade with pews, a baptistery, a steeple, and other sacred things. We had been picking up children on our little church bus and bringing them to worship. When we moved to our new building we kept picking up these children, but I knew it would not last.

During our first week of Vacation Bible School in the new building one of the church mothers became enraged when a group of “those dirty bus kids” ran their hands down the newly painted wall as they walked to class. A campaign began immediately to stop the bus ministry. There would be no place or space for such children.

The sacred is the ritualistic dividing behavior of people; but the holy is something different. The holy is something that is “whole” or “healthy.” Holiness is something that cannot be divided. It is something that is complete, unbroken, and intact.

Thus, holiness is not something defined by lines of segregation or by different shades of acceptance. It is defined by openness and welcome. The holy doesn’t alienate, it invites. The holy doesn’t separate, it welcomes. The holy doesn’t divide, it embraces.

Whereas what is sacred is a small, restricted space that must be sheltered and guarded, the old Norse word for “holy” means “a large living room,” where people are made to feel very much at home. I pray that God makes us holy: Whole, healthy, welcoming people! But I also pray that he never allow us to become a sacred people, for when we lose our ability to be hospitable, inviting the outsider in, we have lost our unique witness in the world.

Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, speaker, and author of multiple books. You can read more and receive regular e-columns in your inbox at www.ronniemcbrayer.me.

 

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Get Humble, get holy

Ronnie McBrayer

Ronnie McBrayer

By Ronnie McBrayer

In the coming days the world’s two billion Christians will begin celebrating Holy Week. Not to be missed in this week of activity is Maundy Thursday. “Maundy” comes from the Latin word mandatum, meaning “commandment.” On Jesus’ last night before his crucifixion, he gathered his disciples and gave them the commandment to love and serve one another. Then he showed them how.

Jesus rolled up his sleeves, threw a towel over his shoulder, and with a basin of water, squatted down to wash the filthy feet of his disciples. Yes, God stooped. The Christ crawled. The Master became the servant. Jesus took the position of a slave and honored those who had not the slightest indication of how holy his act was.

Walter Brueggemann describes this scene: “To kneel in the presence of another is to be totally vulnerable, because you are in an excellent posture to have your face or your groin kicked in. Our Lord made himself vulnerable precisely in that way! He knelt, not in humility or in fear, but in strength and confidence, opening himself to others.”

In the midst of this week of festivities, I wonder if we Christians might pause to consider vulnerability as a holy exercise. See, Jesus never maintained feelings of superiority over others; he eagerly gave up his rights and privileges. Jesus didn’t defend himself with angry tirades or theological manifestos; he taught – and manifested – vulnerable love.

Jesus’ instruction on Maundy Thursday was not a how-to lecture on proving how “right” his followers were; it was a demonstration course for how to live. Thus, the Christian means and method of confrontation is not condemnation, but naked service.

A follower of Jesus testifies to and celebrates the truth he has come to know, but knows in equal measure that the truth has been washed through and through with a foot wash basin. The power of the disciple of Christ is a power wielded, not by force or fist, but by a holy hand towel.

He who would be like Jesus does not lord over others. He gets down on the ground, down on his face, down in the dust, the mire, and the mud. He makes himself completely and totally exposed. Even if those whom he serves kick him in the face; even if they stone him to death; even if they crucify him on a cross: There is no other way.

Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, speaker, and author of multiple books. You can read more and receive regular e-columns in your inbox at www.ronniemcbrayer.me.

 

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Walk On

Ronnie McBrayer

Ronnie McBrayer

In ancient Jerusalem there was a pool of water called Bethesda. The location served as an impromptu hospital ward, a collection point for the sick. Jesus made a visit there and found a lame man lying alongside Bethesda’s waters and healed him.

Then, he gave the now-made-well man practical instructions: “Pick up your mat and walk.” This wasn’t to get the man’s bed out of the way. Jesus was saying, “Get it out of here so that you won’t come back to it!” This former invalid, the best we can tell, had been coming to Bethesda for the better part of four decades. That is a long time to waste lying alongside a bubbling brook. And now that he was empowered to live a better, healthier life, it would be easy for him to fall back into old habits. Jesus wanted this stretcher removed so that the man would not have the temptation to return to it.

This olden story predates today’s advances in neuroscience, but Jesus already knew what researches have confirmed in recent decades: When habits are formed, the brain actually changes. Routines—good or bad—cause neurons in the brain to alter their patterns. So in the process of breaking a habit, the brain must also be “rewired” to not only change a person’s behavior, but to change the firing of synopses inside his head.

If we are going to live a transformed life, there must be a grace-infused commitment not to return to those former ways, habits, persons, lifestyles, and behaviors that will only take us back to an unhealthy way of life. The door to the past has to be slammed shut. Obstacles have to be put in the way to keep us from returning to old ways of thinking and old ways of acting. Spiritual reprogramming and rewiring has to take place.

That is why Jesus told this man to get his mat and get out, because that was the only way he could remove himself from this dead-end, superstitious pool-sitting that would only enslave him, not heal him.

So while we all will have to carry the burden of our yesterdays, our wasted days, and our years of regret—the mats and stretchers we used to rely upon—God’s grace and healing will lighten that burden. And that same grace will help us to walk on, never returning to who we once were.

Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, speaker, and author of multiple books. You can read more and receive regular e-columns in your inbox at www.ronniemcbrayer.me.

 

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Putting the Pieces Together

Englishman N.T. Wright uses a pow-erful example of how our lives fit into the big picture of what God is doing in the world: It is that of a stonemason working on a great cathedral. When these architectural wonders were built during medieval times, the construction pro-cess lasted for decades, even centuries. The masons had little knowledge of how their work would fit into the big scheme. Most of them would not live to see the building completed. They had to trust that the architect would make their work count. Wright concludes his example saying, “The work we do in the present only gains its full significance somewhere in the future.” Nowhere is this illustration more apt than when it comes to our families. We carve the stones that are our children. We chip away at those strained relationships with our siblings or parents. We sand and cut the stones that make our marriage. We don’t know what it is all going to look like in the end. But we do the work put before us, and we trust God to put the pieces together. Certainly, we know the work of “fam-ily construction” is hardly ever easy, even though we preacher-types don’t always ac-knowledge this fact. We are swift to give the impression that if your family is not con-structed of a strong, spiritual bring-home-the-bacon father, a faithful, loving stay-at-home mother, and two and a half obedient, always compliant children, then your family isn’t “biblical” and your work is defective in some way. This is absolutely preposterous. If ineptness at home were a disqualifier, no family would have the construction ma-terials for a future, because every family is dysfunctional in one way or another; it is simply a matter of degree. This proves true especially with the “biblical” families found in the Scriptures. You will be hard pressed to find a family in the Bible – not even Jesus’ own family that once tried to hide him in a padded room – that is not seriously flawed. “Biblical” families, with all their murder, adultery, polygamy, sexism, violence, and envy are far less operational than most of our families, and I think that’s the point. If God can build his glorious cathedral with them, then he ought to be able to use, bless, and preserve our families too. God’s grace will be enough to beautifully construct what we cannot build on our own. Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated colum-nist, speaker, and author of multiple books. You can read more and rece

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Some First, Some Last, All Equal

Ronnie McBrayer

By Ronnie McBrayer

Jesus once told a story about a landowner who hired laborers to harvest grapes from his vineyard. Some employees worked all day, others labored for part of the day, and some arrived to work only at the last hour. The landowner, inexplicably, pays those who were hired last (and worked the least), the same wage as those who were hired first and worked all day.

No matter which way you cut it, this doesn’t seem very fair: Especially for those of us raised with the good old Protestant work ethic, with entrepreneurial capitalism passed along to us in our mother’s milk.

So imagine the scene as it plays out. The tired workers form a line at the end of the day to receive their wages. When the Director of Human Resources arrives with their paychecks, regardless of the hours on the time card, everyone is paid the same! Quickly there is the threat of a labor riot or at least a lawsuit for unfair labor practices. The landowner is summoned an gives this response, “I haven’t been unfair! Should you be jealous because I am kind to others?”

It is a direct and accurate reply, for the angry workers were not enraged over injustice. They were angry because the landowner was generous and gracious to others that had not “earned” their way. The landowner gave grace—making the last first, opening the door to all—and this is what infuriated the other workers.

With this story, Jesus has dug his fingers into a very sore spot for we who are religious people. We preach grace, but we don’t always practice it. We talk about God’s mercy, but we don’t always want the people who need it most to get in on it. We say we are in the redemption business, but we are not eager to open the doors to all would-be patrons.

Landon Saunders says it like this: “Figuring out who is in and who is out is just too much work. It’s too heavy of a burden! Just try to treat every person you meet as if they will be sitting at the table with you in eternity.”

That small change of perspective would do more to advance the kingdom of God on earth than a thousand aggrieved churches that pound their pulpits, point fingers, and exclude others from the love of God and the gates of heaven.

Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, speaker, and author of multiple books. You can read more and receive regular e-columns in your inbox at www.ronniemcbrayer.me.

 

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